Snapshot of a Dublin Past along the Shelly Banks

Image: Paul Brannock

Paul Brannock

“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide. Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.” (John Masefield)

Another New Year and another new day. Friday has come again and despite the dreadful monotony of these deathly times, I still feel that ‘thank crunchie’ feeling. Pivotal to this is that I happen to be overlooking my favourite spot in Ireland. I have viewed many such beauty spots around the country, but the Shelly Banks never fail to capture my heart. Being a proud Ringsender of many generations from both sides of my family, the Shelliers, the river and Dublin Bay are woven into every fibre of me. For these places conjure up many memories as they are an integral part of my childhood and family history. The water of the Irish Sea, and the Liffey which comes to meet it are our meeting of the waters. They are, as the man said, in my blood.
As I stand on the corner of Irishtown Nature Park, or the Tiphead as we knew it (closed in 1977), I look firstly into the
bay, spotting a couple of incoming ferries. It is 12 noon, the tide is almost fully up and there is a strong easterly wind swelling up the waves and crashing them hard on the rocks below, creating that sound and sight which is magical music to my senses. This instils in me a further feeling of inner peace and wellbeing. The rougher the sea, the calmer I am. It must be like this for a lot of people, I suspect, creating a wonderful contradiction, storm and calm intertwined, a sense of freedom perhaps?
Dominating the entire view of course, are the twin chimney stacks of the former ESB station. As I continue my gaze along the road, I can remember the new car park being constructed, along with the steps which lead onto the beach. This was probably 1978.  Also, a new stretch of road was laid to lead around to the Shelly Banks, forever cutting off the old route. Prior to this, the road went, from what is now the 3rd last bend, straight onto the wall. In those sizzling, seventies summers (my teenage son doesn’t believe we had them), the No.1 bus would take you to the ESB gates on the long stretch of the road, the timetables of 8am, 1pm and 5pm, being strictly adhered to so as to accommodate workers along the route. If you missed the 5pm one, you had a hell of a long walk to South Lotts. Other memories of those times are of being burned several times during 1976 and running out to the far off Cockle Lake for a swim by the old rusty buoy, being stung by jellyfish, then having to run all the way back in order to get warm. Not a pleasant experience for a skinny kid as it seemed like ten miles. My da and uncle Robert took way too much delight in all this.
Nowadays, the landscape has changed dramatically. In contrast to many scenarios, the area is becoming ever more beautiful. This is mainly due to the encroachment of the sandbar to the right of the chimney stacks. The strand was officially declared a beach about 30 years ago and the sheer amount of sea which the dunes have gobbled up in the meantime is astonishing. I reckon the spit will have joined up with the corner of the nature park in less than two years. Reclaimed land au natural. It’s a magnificent view from where I’m standing.  All along the coast trail to our long buried childhood sandpits, it is the same. Palm trees flourish. ‘The trail is beautiful, be still’ is engraved on a bench behind me. Apt description indeed! The ruins at Costello’s, battered since by the fury of a thousand storms, grow ever more pleasing to the eye as the sea beats its waves and chisels its marks on our one time oasis; though it’s a pity the paintings of several schooners which adorned the walls have been stripped by the elements. Silt and sand have been driven high into this unique little corner of Dublin Bay and the whole area has been transformed into a stunning montage of natural beauty, all this set against the backdrop of the Bay. I’m reminded of the now defunct PD party and their preposterous dumb proposal, accompanied by a computer generated image of a lower Manhattan type development which would have destroyed this sanctuary. Thank the heavens it will never see the light of day.
I look out again. The Hill of Howth, the Bailey, the North Bull, the Half Moon club on the meandering wall, and at the end the Red of Poolbeg Lighthouse. The waves are drowning the wall. What a spectacle! The two ships have themselves meandered through the various sets of buoys which border the shipping canal and the first one appears to be about to collide with the lighthouse. An intriguing thing to witness at about 4.30pm each evening is the arrival of up to five ferries snaking their way through the doglegs of the canal, but longer evenings are required to behold this. The Kish, a white dot near the horizon. To the right, the lights and piers of Dun Laoghaire Harbour, the town itself, Killiney and the barely visible obelisk or ‘witch’s hat’. Bray Head in the background, little Sugarloaf (Sliabh Chulainn), the Dublin/ Wicklow mountains, all along to Strand Road, Sandymount, which according to a local historian was built so the English monarch, Victoria, on her fourth and final visit to Ireland in 1900, could catch a glimpse of the majesty of the bay from her carriage. Presently, as we know, this road has again become a bone of contention. Of course, during her reign the bay would have been one of many points of export during An Gorta Mor, when vast quantities of food were shipped out by English and Irish merchants whilst millions of poor people, Catholic, Protestant and Presbyterian starved, shamefully sacrificed for greed. Beneath where I now stand, there lies the tattered remnants of a tent. This was home to some unfortunate for a number of years. I wonder if he has found a proper home and hope he is alive. Though I visited here often, I never saw him. Just recently, I noticed some weather-beaten Christmas baubles hanging from a tree right behind where he lived. I felt deep sadness and anger about this.
Right now, another home is being cobbled together in a nearby clump of trees. When the Tip was here the only person sleeping rough was a homeless man we knew as Redbeard. He lived in a wooden hut which he shared with his trusty companion, an escapee greyhound from Shelbourne Park. Now, in the inner sanctum of Nature Park, every possible place of shelter contains a tent or corrugated iron hoarding. Simply put, this is a shocking indictment of Irish society. In my opinion, the people in power for the last two decades, in cahoots with their masters, native and foreign, are every bit as culpable as those of the 1840s.

Fumble in their greasy till and add the halfpence to the pence.

Food banks may have replaced workhouses and soup kitchens and there isn’t anyone dying from starvation, but there has been far too many people living and dying on our streets, and quite frankly, again it is human greed that has caused this. All of us should be ashamed for allowing this situation. And when we think we have it bad ‘cos we can’t go to the pub or restaurant, maybe we should reflect on this and really be thankful that we have a roof over our heads. Change must come!
The Shelly Banks, the Liffey, the Bay. Snapshots in memory of a lifetime spent here, of learning to swim, of digging lugworm and fishing with friends at the lighthouse. As we know, time truly flies. In these present times of highs and lows, ebbs and flows, the Shelliers are indeed a Godsend. Assuming I survive the waves of this pandemic, I will walk this beautiful place for a few more years. When my own ship has sailed, I wish some of my ashes to be scattered where I am now standing and some at our beloved Costelloe’s. I will finish with my Father’s favourite saying for nothing is more true: “Time nor tide waits for no man.” Hey, let’s be careful out there!

Abridged article from ‘Ringsend People Home and Abroad’